Firaxis’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown is both ridiculously fun, and unbelievably frustrating. I generally lean more towards the fun end of that equation, but as a successor to the original UFO: Enemy Unknown (aka X-COM: UFO Defense), which itself was known for its brutal difficulty, things can quickly turn from golden to dead for your squad of intrepid Earth defenders.
Brief story rundown before we hit the nitty-gritty: Aliens are real. Real and vicious. Real, vicious and unsatisfied with peaceful negotiation. To combat this, 16 countries representing Earth as a whole formed a government agency known as the Council, which in turn created the XCOM project, a (not so) fully funded special operations unit whose sole purpose is our defense. From aliens. Which are real.
*Side note: I am a horrible person, and have never played the original X-COM series. As such, I will not be issuing any comparisons (ignore the small one in the introductory paragraph) and will only be reviewing the PS3 version*
XCOM: Enemy Unknown (heretofore referred to as XCOM) is at its heart two different games: turn based ground combat and base/resource management sim. Following the tutorial, XCOM immediately drops you into a combat mission, which is heavily scripted to teach you not only how to move around the map and engage enemies, but that your soldiers will die… as three of your group of four are unceremoniously slaughtered at the hands of the lowest of the alien rung of opponents.
Combat is split between your squad and the aliens, with each individual members granted two actions within the combat round. The first is a movement action, with the area your soldier can reach within one move highlighted in blue. Movement is free within the area, but finishing your move anywhere other than behind cover, which is highlighted as either a full or half full kite shield, is simply suicide. In fact, outside of a few situations where moving to a non-cover space allowed me a virtually assured (95%) instant kill of the last enemy on the map, there really is no reason to ever end your turn out of cover. You will die, it’s just that simple.
The second action in a combat round is the character action. While it can be spent extending your move, most of your actions will be spent either firing at aliens, or going into Overwatch, a kind of heightened readiness that allows that squad member to fire on the first enemy that moves into his field of view. Other actions, such as using a med pack, would also fall into the category of action.
Squad members also level up, rising from the humble and rather horrible Rookie, to the Squaddie, an in between designation that assigns that soldier a specialization: Assault, Heavy, Support, or Sniper. Each comes with a signature skill (Assault gains and extra movement option while retaining the ability to shoot, Heavies get a rocket launcher) as well as a skill tree, which at its highest end, Colonel, grants abilities like Sentinel, which grants Support characters an extra shot while in Overwatch, or Double Tap, which allows a Sniper to fire twice in turn if they forgo moving.
The other side of XCOM comes in the form of the XCOM Base, which is set up in a kind of ant-farm like underground view. There are a number of pre-built non-customizable spaces already built upon entering the base, but there are a number of spaces beneath the main hub that are expandable.
Everything in XCOM costs at least one of three resources: credits, alien equipment, and time. In fact, out of all the resources, time is often the one that you interact with the most, as everything has a time (to build, to research, to heal) associated with it. Alien technology, or even the aliens themselves, take time to research, unlocking better and more powerful equipment for your unit. Engineering is the production arm of research, with an optional (though not really) Foundry available to make your researched items better. The Barracks house your squad and any additional soldiers you have on hand, allowing you to customize their equipment loadouts as well as their names and looks. The Situation room monitors your standing with the Council nations, as they are prone to panic when being invaded.
Keeping the Council nations calm and happy is the primary tenant of XCOM, as calm nations are not likely to pull out of the XCOM project, taking their funding, which you need to continue to fight for them, with them as they leave. The Situation Room allows you to launch satellites over the council nations, and keeping a close watch helps keep those panic scores down. It also give you access to the Grey Market, where you can sell alien corpses and equipment, though as with all things XCOM, you’re trading research materials for quick access to money.
The final room is Mission Control, and it’s from here that you access the holographic world map, watching days pass in a matter of moments as you scan the Earth for your alien enemies. Scanning sessions are tense, and are often a matter of luck as you watch time tick off of your current projects, wondering if the next attack will come after your wounded squad has healed enough to head off into another skirmish, or if the Council will see fit to grant you your monthly allowance, so you can immediately blow it on new equipment, or new construction projects.
It’s this stage of the game that shows you XCOM’s devious side, as there is never enough of any one resource to do everything you need to do. Do you equip your sniper with the 150 credit sniper rifle, or build a satellite nexus so that you can launch 4 more satellites, which you haven’t built yet, over more of the council nations, so that you can earn more cash during your monthly Council report?
And when the next alien attack comes, which it will, you’re often presented with a choice of multiple engagements. Whichever you choose, the host country sees it’s panic level drop, while the ones you don’t choose, see theirs rise. There’s a delicate balance to strike, and with each mission offering a variety of rewards from additional credits to more engineers/scientists, sometimes the right resource choice means leaving an already panicked country to get even worse.
Sometimes XCOM throws a UFO at you, either one that’s already landed and doing its business, or one that you have to shoot down. I did mention that you also have to make sure each continent has its own air defense force, which also comes out of your pocket right?
These missions are half blessing/half curse, as a UFO means tons of resources if you can get through it without blowing it straight to hell with grenades and rockets. It also means a ton of defenders, especially when dealing with a UFO that landed on its own.
XCOM also offers a multiplayer option. Taking the form of a 1v1, squad against squad fight, each side is given points with which to build their group, which can be made of either XCOM soldiers and/or aliens. The point buy system doesn’t allow for a lot of leeway in how human soldiers are created, as each piece of upgraded weaponry really start to add up. Aliens are all a set price, ranging from 400 points for the standard sectoid, to a full 9000, out of a possible 10K, for the top ranking Ethereal. Each side gets a 2 minutes per turn, and engagements often hinge on which side has the most moves left upon seeing their opponent.
Everything in XCOM looks awesome. Zooming into the individual rooms of your ant-farm gives you a real good look at the goings on of your staff, and even the occasional glimpse of your soldiers playing pool or working out in the barracks.
Combat maps looks great to are and are pretty varied, with missions taking place at strip malls and restaurants, as well as UFO crash sites out in the woods. The UFOs themselves are often pretty breath taking, with the designers using lots of colored lights and lens flare (almost to a JJ Abrams extent) to really flesh out the alien interiors.
Combat itself is a blast to watch too. Zooming in from the isometric viewpoint to a third person cinematic view during individual actions really brings you right into the fight, especially when you watch your soldier whiff and fire a shot everywhere that his/her target wasn’t. Combine that with destructible environments, and the strip mall you started at often looks like a pile of fire and debris when everything is said and done.
That’s not to say that XCOM is without its problems. Being an Unreal 3 game on the PS3, expect a ton of texture pop in as the levels initially load. Frame rate issues also abound in the heat of battle, and while you won’t be missing any important moves with everything being turn based, 5 overwatched soldiers firing all at once at a single moving enemy while the game tries to show you the zoomed in view of one soldier shooting can often leave things moving at a crawl until all the actions are complete.
XCOM is a blast to play. Normally being the perfectionist, I expected to find myself reloading constantly when things didn’t go my way, but I often found myself just rolling with the punches, as most meltdowns only happened after I ignored the first lesson of XCOM, patience.
Throwing caution to the wind, even for a second, often means one more name on the memorial wall displayed in the barracks. Encounters can go from well played, calculated shoot outs to all out anarchy in the blink of an eye, and it happens when you think you have the upper hand and are suddenly invincible.
Having completed three encounters without losing a soldier, I was thinking I was pretty hot shit. Loading up a construction site, I vaulted my Assault soldier (whose nickname was Feral, owing to his animal like ferocity with his shotgun) in first, skipping the safe, overwatch move for the double dash to what aliens were waiting to die. I surprised three Mutons (heavy grunt aliens) and immediately brought my squad in, making sure they were in cover against the small group, spread apart enough to not incur the wrath of the Muton grenade.
They were in perfect cover… against that one group. But the group on the second floor of the construction site, which I didn’t see, flanked them. Oh, and the group in the back right corner. And the group in the back left corner. In the span of twelve seconds, XCOM managed to show me that the only thing I knew about being hot shit had to do with the load that I had dropped in my pants. And with that, it dropped the mike and walked off stage.
Literally. Yeah, literally. Because while XCOM was busy show boating, all that alien activity bugged the game out.
For all the fun that XCOM brings to the table, it has its share of really annoying bugs on the PS3. The first only happened a few times, and that was getting stuck when I tried to do multiple actions at once, like trying to perform another action while the game was still dealing with the current one. The second, which is far more disastrous, happens during the third and final act. Every mission begins with the Skyranger, the XCOM school bus as it were, leaving your squad at the drop zone. Well, the first mission you try after starting the game for your current session goes flawlessly. Every second mission, however, ends with the game hardlocking after the Skyranger cinematic plays. I don’t know whether this is a memory issue, ala Skyrim and the ever expanding save game, but it’s an annoying game killer, as each and every instance requires a complete reboot of the system.
Majorly annoying, heartbreaking, game stopper of a bug aside, XCOM was worth the money I spent to pick it up. I can easily see myself playing through this multiple times, growing as attached to each group of awesome, yet often spectacularly inept soldiers, as I did to the first. There a fair amount of replay with different starting countries, different base layouts, and procedurally generated combat. Just like other Firaxis games *cough Civilization cough*, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is all about taking “just one more turn.”